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A Return to Madness
The Psychotic Fantasy of Electric Deregulation Continues,
With Renewed Interest in Nuclear Power

by Harvey Wasserman
Columbus Alive
April 5, 2001

California's deregulatory meltdown will likely cost its ratepayers some $60 billion, for which they will get virtually nothing in return.

The 1996 law that threw the state into chaos was written by the electric utilities now claiming bankruptcy. It has allowed them to launder more than $20 billion to their parent companies, with no accountability. Though they spent $40 million to defeat a 1998 statewide green-sponsored referendum that would have repealed this madness, the power companies and their media minions continue to blame the public and the environmental movement for the mess. Another $20 billion to $40 billion has been stolen by Enron, Reliant and other gas companies close to George W. Bush, who manipulated power supplies while federal regulatory agencies and California's Democratic Governor Gray Davis did nothing.

The economic and ecological shock waves of this tragedy will reverberate for decades. But for pure psychotic fantasy, none can exceed its use as a pretext to build more nuclear power plants.

For weeks now the corporate media has overflowed with "too cheap to meter" bombast. Pompous talk show bloviators have spun reactors as an "overlooked" oasis of energy. Most recently, the right-wing Weekly Standard carried a massive, profoundly inaccurate tome on the alleged need for a nuclear revival.

But let's look at some practical realities.

To begin with, the crisis in California was actually caused by atomic power. The deregulatory impulse first came from big industrial users and gas companies who meant to undercut the state's utilities, which couldn't compete because of their huge reactor investments.

The utilities countered by whining to a bought state legislature that their reactors required a bailout. So deregulation came with $28.5 billion in "stranded costs" tagged on for those bum nukes. Thus far more than $20 billion has been taken from ratepayers and funneled to parent corporations.

Now those nukes have suddenly become "economical" in the eyes of the same media that supported their being bailed out. But that very media somehow missed the February 3 fire that knocked out San Onofre Unit Three, near Los Angeles, causing untold millions in damage. A full report is due from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, from which we may or may not learn what actually happened. We do know that in an instant, fully a quarter of the state's reactor capacity disappeared, bringing down the capacity to power more than a million homes.

As we saw at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, no other technology can do so much damage so instantaneously.

The green community bitterly opposed reactors at both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, demanding the billions spent there be used instead for solar power, wind, electric efficiency and conservation. Had their advice been followed, California would now be energy self-sufficient.

Indeed, as early as 1952, the Truman administration's Paley Commission asked the country to build a solar future, predicting 15 million sun-heated homes by 1975. But Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program intervened the next year. More than a trillion dollars has since been squandered on atomic power, for which we now receive a paltry 20 percent of our electricity.

In the late 1970s the safe energy movement again pushed for massive investments in renewable and efficient energy sources. This time the Reagan administration sent a booming wind and solar industry packing to Denmark, Germany, Japan and Israel.

At 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, wind is now the cheapest and fastest-to-build form of new electric power generation, with capacity growing worldwide at 25 percent every year. In 2000, Germany alone installed some 1,300 megawatts, more than what's generated by any single U.S. nuke.

Between the Rockies and the Mississippi, as well as offshore and in hundreds of Eastern locations, the U.S. has more than enough wind potential to generate its entire electrical supply more cheaply and more quickly than any other source. Photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, are more expensive, but with a large-scale industrial infrastructure, they offer the secure promise of clean energy independence. Increased efficiency -- we still waste half of what we burn -- can save energy far more cheaply than we can generate it with any new source. Not to mention that the time required for a new nuke to come online -- five to 10 years, assuming a site can be selected tomorrow with no public opposition -- would hardly ease the current power "crisis."

But in the face of all that, the hugely financed nuclear power industry persists.

Strangely, much of the nuclear hype has been on a new technology called "pebble bed reactors." The rhetoric is familiar: inherently safe, too cheap to meter, no environmental impact. But no such operating reactors exist today. There was one pebble bed prototype in Germany. It's now shut. Another may be built in South Africa, but that will take five years.

The much-vaunted "breeder" technology, meant to produce more fuel than it used, is a certified failure, with dead reactors in Britain, Germany and Japan standing as mute (but radioactive) testimony.

Meanwhile, some 500 less exotic "light water" reactors have been built worldwide since the 1950s. By downplaying the technology on which it's relied for a half-century in favor of an untested new design, what is the industry trying to tell us?

Right now the industry is boasting about alleged low operating costs and high efficiencies. But with utility deregulation has come the abandonment of nuclear safety standards. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission exists only as a rubber stamp for license extensions on decaying nukes that cry out for retirement. With official approval, staff and maintenance are being slashed. Today's reactor industry is a runaway train, flying down a steep incline with no brakes, setting speed records along the way, but headed for a predictable end.

Yet even without factoring in unknown future costs for radioactive waste management, health impacts and the inevitable meltdowns, increased efficiency and conservation are cheaper. So is wind power. And photovoltaics will join them long before the first "new generation" reactor can come on line, no matter which breed of this failed technology gets the nod.

A combination of these renewables and efficiencies would allow communities and individual homes and businesses to control their own power supply, independent of the oil, gas and utility companies. Which is the real reason for this nuclear diversion -- just as it was 50 years ago.

Copyright 2001 Columbus Alive, Inc.

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